By Ian Dunt
British political coverage of American elections is a stubborn thing. It has a certain way of discussing the campaign - what are the candidates’ backgrounds, which one would be favoured by the British government, what does it say about UK political trends, all of that. There’s been plenty of it in this election, with reports weighing up Boris Johnson’s close relationship with Donald Trump against the greater policy alignment with Joe Biden, or asking about the Democrat’s likely economic performance.
To even attempt this level of analysis is to fundamentally misunderstand what this election is about. The far more appropriate model is Star Wars. We are talking about the light side of the force versus the dark side of the force. Any more sophisticated argument misses the significance of what is happening.
This is not because Biden is some kind of saint, or because his policy agenda is so virtuous that it is beyond interrogation. It is because he has only one quality which matters: He is not Donald Trump. He does not side with white supremacists. He does not brand Latin Americans rapists. He does not threaten US democracy. He does not celebrate assaulting women. He does not mock the disabled. He does not undermine the entire notion of objective truth.
Some object to that and point out that the people around Trump - those who have made it without being fired - are just as venal as he is. Stephen Miller, his senior policy adviser, was behind many of the most odious anti-immigrant measures. Mike Pence, his vice-president, holds many deeply regressive views.
But it was instructive to watch Pence face off in debate against Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris this week. With Trump gone, the debate returned to something approaching normality. There were interruptions and unpleasant opinions, but the candidates had a chance to speak and challenge each other with something approaching respectability. Some people called it boring. If so, then we could use a lot more of it.
Trump is the chaos engine. That is not to say that everything will return to normal if he is defeated. The global nationalist wave will continue until the causes which gave rise to it are addressed. It’s to say that he is much more harmful than any other candidate we have seen in American history. His behaviour degenerates the standards of debate. It actively stokes the hatred of women and minorities. It destabilises democratic functions. And it corrodes basic notions like civility and politeness. It turns politics into tribal warfare.
Even stripped back to its most self-interested strategic elements, there is no good outcome from a Trump victory for Britain. Trump’s attempt to destroy the global rules-based system through attacks on the WTO, the UN and his brutal trade wars are particularly dangerous for mid-range powers like the UK, who were able to navigate the system effectively. His attack on basic moral norms has effects which ripple out far further than just the US, poisoning our discourse across the world.
But there’s a much more basic form of damage which he perpetuates, and which neither Boris Johnson nor Theresa May were smart enough to recognise. It does not matter whether you have a close relationship to a nationalist president. His mantra is America First. It is at the core of what you could, if you were feeling generous, call his philosophy.
That does not admit of multilateralism or close bilateral cooperation. The entire worldview is inimical to it. That’s why the long-touted US-UK trade deal has not materialised and will be politically impossible for Britain if it does. It’s why Trump, despite all his support for Brexit, was so quick to start lashing out May or other British figures on Twitter. A close relationship with him means nothing. It has no value.
One of the central intellectual distinctions of the post-2016 period is between those who understand the severity of the moment we’re living in and those who do not. The latter camp - whether they’re in journalism, politics or campaign work - keep fitting events into a normal political calculation. They shift with the changed topography and carry on as before. This is the kind of response which allows nationalism to thrive. It makes it the new normal.
The former camp recognises that what we are seeing is an assault on the basic values which underpin Western civilisation and liberal democracy. They refuse to move. They can therefore resist, as those who shift are unable to.
That is the distinction we are seeing now. There is really no need for any analysis of Biden or Trump’s relative strengths or weaknesses. The very act of doing so presumes that one could rationally select one over the other. And that, in this case, is simply not true.
We have a presidential candidate who refuses to confirm that they would accept the result of the election. They will not guarantee the peaceful transfer of power. To treat that as normal is to legitimise it. The only democratic response is to recognise the overwhelming moral need to remove him from office. Not for the sake of progressive politics, or even the fight against populism, but in order to protect democracy.
It’s the light side of the force versus the dark. That kind of clear-cut moral decision sounds childlike and facile. It is not. It is, in fact, a disaster. The fact we can talk in such simplified ways means things have gone terrible, terribly wrong.
Those of us without a vote must pray that Trump is defeated and, just as importantly, that we will never be able to talk in such simplified terms again.